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American Civil War: Major General George G. Meade

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American Civil War: Major General George G. Meade

Major General George G. Meade, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

George Meade - Early Life:

Born at Cádiz, Spain on December 31, 1815, George Gordon Meade was the son of Richard and Margaret Meade. A Philadelphia merchant living in Spain, Meade served as a US naval agent in Cádiz until his death in 1828. Shortly after his passing, the family returned to the United States and young George was sent to school in Baltimore, MD. With the family facing a difficult financial situation, Meade elected to enter West Point in 1831. Graduating 19th in a class of 56, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1835 and assigned to the 3rd US Artillery.

George Meade - Early Career:

Dispatched to Florida to fight the Seminoles, Meade soon fell ill with fever and was transferred to the Watertown Arsenal in Massachusetts. Recovering, he left the army in 1836 and began working as an engineer surveying new lines for railroad companies. Marrying Margaretta Sergeant in 1840, he found steady work increasingly difficult to obtain. In 1842, he re-entered the US Army and was made a lieutenant of topographical engineers. Assigned to Texas in 1845, he served as a staff officer in Major General Zachary Taylor's army after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War the following year.

Present at Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, he was brevetted to first lieutenant for gallantry at the Battle of Monterrey. Returning to Philadelphia after the conflict, he spent the bulk of the next decade designing lighthouses and conducting coastal surveys on the East Coast. Promoted to captain in 1856, he was ordered west the following year to oversee a survey of the Great Lakes. Publishing his report in 1860, he remained on the Great Lakes until the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861.

George Meade - The Civil War:

Returning east, he was promoted to brigadier general of volunteers on August 31 at the recommendation of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtain and given command of the 2nd Brigade, Pennsylvania Reserves. Initially assigned to Washington, DC, his men built fortifications around the city until being assigned to Major General George McClellan's newly formed Army of the Potomac. Moving south in the spring of 1862, Meade took part in McClellan's Peninsula Campaign until being wounded at the Battle of Glendale on June 30. Quickly recovering, he rejoined his men in time for the Second Battle of Manassas in late August.

In the course of the fighting, his brigade took part in the vital defense of Henry House Hill which allowed the remainder of the army to escape after the defeat. Shortly after the battle he was given command of the 3rd Division, I Corps. Moving north at the beginning of the Maryland Campaign, he performed well at the Battle of South Mountain and again three days later at Antietam. When his corps commander, Major General Joseph Hooker, was wounded, Meade was selected by McClellan to take over. Leading I Corps for the remainder of the battle, he was wounded in the thigh.

Returning to his division, Meade achieved the only Union success during the Battle of Fredericksburg that December when his men drove back the troops of Lieutenant General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. His success was not exploited and his division was forced to fall back. In recognition for his actions, he was promoted to major general. Given command of V Corps on December 25, he commanded it at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. During the course of the battle, he implored Hooker, now the army commander, to be more aggressive but to no avail.

George Meade - Taking Command:

Following his victory at Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee began moving north to invade Pennsylvania with Hooker in pursuit. Arguing with his superiors in Washington, Hooker was relieved on June 28 and command was offered to Major General John Reynolds. When Reynolds declined, it was offered to Meade who accepted. Assuming command of the Army of the Potomac at Frederick, MD, Meade continued to move after Lee. Known to his men as "The Old Snapping Turtle," Meade had reputation for a short temper and possessed little patience for the press or civilians.

George Meade - Gettysburg:

Three days after taking command, two of Meade's corps encountered the Confederates at Gettysburg. Opening the Battle of Gettysburg, they were mauled but succeeded in holding favorable ground for the army. Rushing his men to the town, Meade won a decisive victory over the next two days and effectively turned the tide of the war in the East. Though triumphant, he was soon criticized for failing to aggressively pursue Lee's battered army and deliver a war-ending blow. Following the enemy back to Virginia, Meade conducted ineffective campaigns at Bristoe and Mine Run that fall.

George Meade - Under Grant:

In March 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was appointed lead all Union armies. Understanding that Grant would come east and citing the importance of winning the war, Meade offered to resign from his army command if the new commander preferred to appoint someone different. Impressed by Meade's gesture, Grant refused the offer. Though Meade retained command of the Army of the Potomac, Grant made his headquarters with the army for the remainder of the war. This proximity led to a somewhat awkward relationship and command structure.

In March 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was appointed lead all Union armies. Understanding that Grant would come east and citing the importance of winning the war, Meade offered to resign from his army command if the new commander preferred to appoint someone different. Impressed by Meade's gesture, Grant refused the offer. Though Meade retained command of the Army of the Potomac, Grant made his headquarters with the army for the remainder of the war. This proximity led to a somewhat awkward relationship and command structure.

That May, the Army of the Potomac embarked on the Overland Campaign with Grant issuing orders to Meade who in turn issued them to the army. Meade largely performed well as the fighting progressed through the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, but chaffed at Grant's interference in the army's matters. He also took issue with Grant's perceived preference for officers who had served with him in the west as well as his willingness to absorb heavy casualties. Conversely, some within Grant's camp felt that Meade was too slow and cautious. As the fighting reached Cold Harbor and Petersburg, Meade's performance began to slip as he did not direct his men to scout properly prior to the former battle and failed to coordinate his corps properly in the opening stages of the latter.

During the siege of Petersburg, Meade again erred altering the attack plan for the Battle of the Crater for political reasons. Remaining in command throughout the siege, he fell ill on the eve of the final breakthrough in April 1865. Unwilling to miss the army's final battles, he led the Army of the Potomac from an army ambulance during the Appomattox Campaign. Though he made his headquarters near Grant's, he did not accompany him to the surrender talks on April 9.

George Meade - Later Life

With the end of the war, Meade remained in the service and moved through various department commands on the East Coast. In 1868, he took over the Third Military District in Atlanta and oversaw Reconstruction efforts in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. Four years later, he was struck by a sharp pain in his side while in Philadelphia. An aggravation of the wound sustained at Glendale, he declined rapidly and contracted pneumonia. After a brief fight, he succumbed on November 7, 1872, and was buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Selected Sources

  • National Park Service: George G. Meade
  • Civil War Home: George G. Meade
  • General Meade Society

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